By Bob Mann
Date Posted: Sunday, 13 December 2009
There is a school of thought which proposes that where we are born and where we spend our childhood influences the rest of our lives. In this, the first of a series by different authors, Bob Mann reflects upon the significance being born in, and living in, the same town for most of his life has had for him.
A Sense of Being Home
I was born, fifty-one years ago, in the South Devon town of Totnes, and I have lived in or around it – apart from four years in Buckfastleigh, only six miles away, but a very different kind of place – ever since. I have wandered the streets and surrounding landscapes, absorbing the town’s memories and stories, from earliest childhood. For nearly twenty years I have been involved in interpreting its history, folklore and creative associations through writing, speaking and leading guided walks. I have been a town councillor, museum trustee, school governor and much else.
People frequently tell me how much I love the place, and how much I know about it. I suppose they are right, though not quite in the way they mean. I am not madly in love with the town as someone who retires here in late middle age is likely to be, who doesn’t want anything to change from how it looked when they first saw it; nor do I try to project onto it all my desires and fantasies of the ideal community (green, traffic free, rooted in the soil etc). Both are common reactions to the town. I am obviously attached to the place, but I am not parochial, and there are some aspects of life here – the endless multiplication of groups and forums all debating the same issues and reinventing the same wheels, the pick-and-mix ‘spirituality’ and create-your-own-therapy, the proliferation of shops selling little but scented candles – that can be tiresome. When I was in Buckfastleigh I had very little contact with Totnes, and there have been times in my life when I have been quite prepared to move elsewhere. I try to have as much sense of planetary responsibility as anyone, and though I don’t travel much, I like to feel I’m a true global citizen. But, having said all that, I cannot deny that there is, within me, a deep sense of Totnes being home, which is of value in both my life and writing.
The size helps. With a population of around 8,000 or so, it is big enough to breathe in but small enough to be full of known, or at least potentially knowable, individuals. The socially diverse and creative ambience nurtured by its close proximity to Dartington Hall, especially the college of arts, has definitely been important in keeping me here. I often say in the pub that, had I grown up in a more ‘ordinary’ Devon town, I would probably have had to get out before I was twenty, or go mad, but with Dartington up the road I could broaden my horizons and experience without leaving home. I’m only half joking.
There is also the simple fact that it is a very attractive place, physically, with its river, hills, ancient streets and the history, visible and readable, in its buildings. All this has naturally fed my imaginative and creative life. But even had I been born somewhere less obviously appealing, I think I would still have a strong sense of community and involvement, because that’s just how I was brought up.
My parents were both active in the town in all kinds of ways, and I grew up thinking it was normal to be in clubs, charities and organisations. In this way you can get to deeply know a place, and how it works. I can think of four people, who died recently, who were literally there from my earliest childhood, familiar in street, shop, and later pub, whom I came across frequently in various contexts, and with whom I ended up being a fellow councillor and committee member. I find this strangely satisfying, even moving, just as, passing the cemetery several times a day, I take pleasure in the fact that there are four generations of my family there, even though I rarely visit the graves, and never leave anything on them.
I am aware that such an experience is increasingly unusual. I will make no attempt to generalise, but I can say that, for me, staying in the same place has probably worked. I certainly don’t feel I have missed anything.
© goodenoughcaring.com and Bob Mann : December, 2009